the White Elephant that changed Great Lakes history
by Katherine McIntyre
Photo: Mural at Lock 7 of the Welland Canal, Thorold, Ontario.
Photo by Katherine McIntyre
Until the schooners Annie and
Jane and the R.H. Boughton made the first historic journey through the completed Welland Canal on November 30, 1829, most local people considered the forty-four kilometre canal with its forty wooden locks a white elephant. Instead, it changed the course of Great Lakes shipping forever. Insufficient funds and a hostile environment did not deter William Hamilton Merritt, the entrepreneur who made it happen.
At the age of twenty-five, Merritt was on his way to riches. He already owned a sawmill, a gristmill, a general store and a salt works; but he was having financial problems. The hot, dry summers of the early 19th century had reduced the water in the Twelve Mile Creek to a trickle. Profits from his mills were diminishing. He envisioned that a water ditch from Chippewa Creek on the crest of the Niagara Escarpment into Twelve Mile Creek would solve his problems. He borrowed a water level, and along with two local farmers and mill owners, George Keefer and John DeCew, he rode by horseback to the crest of the Escarpment to explore the possibilities of a water channel.
Up to this time, cargo was moved from ships on Lake Ontario to ships on Lake Erie by horse and wagon along an old portage road—a cumbersome and time-consuming process. Almost immediately it became apparent to the three men that a ship canal would be a source of profit and should replace the old road. The idea took root. Merritt called a meeting of local townspeople of the Village of St. Catharines to petition the Upper Canada Legislature to join the waterways by a canal that would connect Lake Ontario with Lake Erie, using as many rivers as possible and ascending the Escarpment by an incline railway. This original concept was quickly modified to eliminate the railway and use a series of locks to raise the ships up the Escarpment. In early 1824, the Welland Canal Company was formed.
To finance the project, Merritt first approached local merchants and farmers. They jeered at his plan. The money magnates in Montreal showed interest but not enough to dip into their savings. The recently opened and successful Erie Canal proved an adequate incentive for American financier John Yates to create a syndicate of New York investors to advance the money. He commented, “The scheme is well designed with energy unusual in their country.” But the syndicate insisted that the canal should be deeper than planned to enable sloops instead of boats to pass through. Despite the fact that the syndicate had financed the project, as non-Canadians they could not sit on the board. On November 30, 1824, two hundred skeptical locals witnessed George Keefer, president of the newly formed company, turn the first sod for the new canal.
The proposed route began at Port Dalhousie, a small hamlet on Lake Ontario. It ascended the Escarpment by a series of forty hand-hewn timber locks and proceeded south through a winding waterway to Lake Erie by way of the Welland and Niagara Rivers with a “Deep Cut” between Port Robinson and Allanburg.
Work began in 1829. For fifty cents a day, Irish immigrants laboured on the canal with picks and shovels. They stuffed gunpowder into hand-drilled holes to blast into the limestone Escarpment. They carted away the rocks and mud in wheelbarrows and mule-drawn wagons or on slings on their backs. Six times a day, a young boy would come by with a welcome tot of grog from a large pail of whiskey. Their living conditions were deplorable; cholera and malaria were a constant threat.
Work progressed at a surprising pace until the fall of 1828 when disaster struck. Heavy November rains caused the banks of the Deep Cut to collapse and a revised route with additional costs extended the building process. Finally on stormy day on November 29, 1829, a scow had to break two inches of ice, before the sailing schooner Annie and Jane with Merritt on board, could make the first twenty-four hour journey by water from Port Dalhousie to the Niagara River. In a letter to his wife praising the opening day, Merritt did not mention the workers’ riot for £10,000 of back pay or the teams of horses or oxen, led by plodding drivers, that pulled his ship through the locks.
Europeans considered the completed 26-mile canal of forty hand-hewed wooden locks, which crawled up a 99.5-metre (326-foot) escarpment and cut into the heart of a continent, a wonder of the world and a monumental feat of engineering. Working on a gravity system, a ship was towed into a lock, the wood gate shut, the lock filled with water, the upper gate opened and the ship was towed into the next lock. But all was not serene: for the newer, larger ships, the locks were too small; they had to be wider and deeper. The wood which was supposed to have lasted for forty years started to deteriorate. Debts mounted. The American investor Yates wrote, “I am tired of the canal…it has embittered my life.” Finally the government of Upper Canada took over the debt and paid back the investors their original investment, and nothing more.
Merritt’s Ditch as it was known in its early days has been deepened and re-routed many times. A key component to the St. Lawrence Seaway, it takes only 12 hours to pass the 42 kilometres from Port Weller on Lake Ontario to Port Colborne on Lake Erie. Eight concrete locks have replaced the forty old wooden locks. The naysayers were wrong. Merritt’s Ditch was not a white elephant! It opened the continent and changed the course of Great Lakes shipping forever.
ALONG THE CANAL
In the midst of wine country, the entrance to the First Canal was at Port Dalhousie. You can still see remnants of the Second Canal built in 1844. The town, now a part of St. Catharines, is famous for its vast sandy shoreline, an antique carousel with hand-carved animals for five cents a ride, its own lighthouse, a dinner theatre, and plenty of coffee shops and historic houses. www.portdalhousie.ca
Not to be missed, Lock 3 is an engineering marvel, and if you call ahead at 800-305-5134, you can see a great freighter passing through the locks. The accompanying museum displays the history of the lock from Merritt’s dream to present day, as well as the history of Canada’s national sport—not hockey, but lacrosse. The city is alive with summer festivals. Mountain Locks Park and Morningstar Mill (one of Ontario’s oldest mills) are heritage gems.
Mountain Locks Park Walking Tour: 905-688-5600
City of Thorold
You can witness ships climbing the mountain at Locks 4, 5, 6, and 7. Or take a walking tour through the historic old town of Thorold. Don’t miss the Keefer Mansion Inn and the Welland Mills for heritage grandeur. View history of the area in Beaverdams Park, and portions of the cut-stone Second Welland Canal built in 1845. www.thoroldtourism.ca
City of Welland
In its 500 acres of parks, you will find one of the finest rose gardens in Canada. The canal has been re-routed from the centre of town, leaving the old canal as a site for rowing, kayaking, paddling and boating. It is home to a 100-year-old farmers’ market selling Niagara’s best fruits and vegetables, homemade bread and much more. www.tourismwelland.com
City of Port Colborne
You can see the freighters passing through the canal while you sip coffee at a waterfront café. This marine city, the terminal of the Welland Canal, has its own small pioneer village, a lift bridge and the only place on the canal where there are still signs of the Second and Third Canals and today’s working Fourth Canal. Its museum has a splendid display of canal history. www.experienceportcolborne.com
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 56, Summer/Autumn 2008. Copyright Katherine McIntyre.
TO STORY INDEX
TO BACK ISSUE PAGE